Making Goals Meaningful & Manageable


BY TOM KEATING Goal Guide allows parents to share in this process and it allows teachers to manage multiple students’ goal portfolios

We’re all familiar with goals. Goals enable us to live the lives we want to live. We either have, or we’re told we should have, goals for business, for financial planning, for healthier living. Parents of students with disabilities are probably more familiar than they want to be with a certain type of goal—the IEP goal. Fraught with promise, IEP goals can be like organizational mission statements. When asked, an organization member will say, “I know we have one. I’ll have to see if I can find it.”

So what makes for a good goal—one you might actually attain? Perhaps the most important thing is that it is your goal—one that has meaning to you. Second, a good goal is one you have control over. You get to decide how it is implemented. Third, you’re the one who decides how to measure how well it is going. And finally, you take the lead in deciding what comes next. But how does this all happen if you happen to be someone with a cognitive disability? There are goal management software applications that promise users a smooth path to success. But what if you have limited ability to use the kinds of goal management apps and systems that are commonly available?

We received federal research and development funding through the National Institute for Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR) to develop and evaluate the effectiveness of a web-based application, Goal Guide, to help students and others create and track personal, academic, and vocational goals that matter to them.

What is Goal Guide?

Goal Guide is designed to be a cognitively accessible tool to enable users to: create their own goals; monitor their own performance; designate incentives for goal achievement; and instantly see a chart of their progress. Goal Guide allows parents to share in this process and it allows teachers to manage multiple students’ goal portfolios. Teachers and parents can get email updates on students’ interaction with their goals. Information sharing and external accountability can be key aspects of successful goal accomplishment. We developed a prototype of Goal Guide in collaboration with a school district transition program for students aged 18-21. These students were earning modified diplomas and receiving extended special education services to enable them to find work or attend community college classes, and to settle into independent living.

Most students had some reading ability. All were challenged by the concept of goal

management. Prior to our involvement school personnel worked within a program model through which they met with each student on a weekly basis to develop personal, academic, and functional goals and to discuss their progress. However, the process relied on paper and pencil and was largely managed by the teachers and educational assistants. We first met with students, staff, and parents to get their ideas on what a web-based alternative might look like and what features it should have. After rapidly prototyping a minimum viable version of the application, we instituted weekly classes where students learned about goal management by using the application. They also gave us valuable feedback on how it worked for them on the variety of mobile devices they were already using.

How Does it Work?

Goal Guide involves a series of clearly defined steps each with corresponding screen pages. Every step in the process is designed to enhance user autonomy—and each step includes options for sharing with critical support persons—teaching staff, family members, or friends.

The steps for creating a goal are simple. The user picks a category—School, Work, or Personal; enters a description of the goal; picks an icon that symbolizes the goal; and chooses a method for tracking the goal—a Yes/No response or specific units of measurement. Once the goal meets the user’s approval, he or she saves the goal. Figures 1 and 2 show the overlapping parts of the Create a Goal format. Figure 3 shows a sample list of goals that a user might see after logging in. Figure 4 shows that when a specific goal is tapped, “Get Good Quiz Grades” in this instance, a data entry screen opens to allow a quiz score to be entered.

After entering the score the student clicks the green “I Did It!” button. At any time, the charting icon at the right edge of the goal item can be tapped to display a graph of data that has been entered, as seen in Figure 5. After clicking “I Did It!”, the goal shows a check mark and the color changes from blue to green as it moves to the group of accomplished goals at the bottom of the goal list. In Figure 6 a green goal has been tapped to present the option of reusing the goal or deleting it if no longer needed. Testers found these color differences useful and found it reinforcing to be able to easily swipe down to see their accomplishments. Reusing goals makes it

easy to enter data as often or infrequently as preferred. Note that in this prototype version the categories and the icon selections were fixed for interface testing purposes in ways that accommodated the specific user group. These features will be customizable in future versions. We also plan to provide a feature that allows users to assign an incentive for goal completion and track progress toward meeting the criterion for earning the incentive.

Evaluating Goal Guide

In developing the prototype we evaluated the usability and effectiveness of Goal Guide with 14 students from our collaborating transition program. We collected data at two distinct points.

First, we asked students to use the application after hearing a one sentence description of the program’s purpose. We then measured how well they could use the program. Following that, we gave them a short tutorial on how to use the application and tested them again on how well they could use it. Users were able to independently understand how to use the application with a high degree of accuracy – averaging 83% of steps correct after receiving just the one-sentence explanation. Following the tutorial instruction, average accuracy increased to 97%, approximating complete understanding of the interface. These results indicate that Goal Guide makes intuitive sense to students “right out of the box” but is also highly responsive to instruction.

We also collected student satisfaction data upon completion of the class and following

a three-week field trial. Results from 8 of the 9 students who participated in the weekly class showed high levels of satisfaction. When asked to rate how likely they were to continue using Goal Guide, on a scale of 1-5, the average rating was 4.5. When asked whether they were likely to continue their involvement with developing the application in a future class, the response was “very likely”, with average rating of 4.5. Students also provided useful suggestions for further development, such as being able to archive goals that are not currently active, rather than deleting them, so they can be reused when needed.

An additional observation that emerged from the weekly class sessions was that even though some students indicated that they had existing systems for goal management, most students in fact were not actively managing their own goals, and further, most didn’t really understand what

goal management meant or how to do it. It became very clear that by teaching them how to use Goal Guide, we were in essence teaching them the fundamentals of goal setting and tracking, and that the application provided an excellent scaffold to structure those lessons.

A related finding is that although this user group had functional reading ability, focus group comments revealed that they strongly preferred using an app-based system for goal management rather than the paper and pencil approach used previously, and that they preferred the icon-assisted interface employed by Goal Guide regardless of reading ability. Students generated some unexpected uses for their goal data. One tester said he wanted to be able to keep track of his performance on arriving at school or work on time and “be able to show it to an employer for a job he was trying to get.” Another student commented that using an app like this would “show an employer that you were well-organized, and that might help you get a job.”

These observations underscore the importance of getting self-management applications into students’ hands with the realization that they will run with them, using them in unanticipated ways and undoubtedly generating suggestions for future features and tools. Regarding the issue of integration with existing practices for busy educators, the lead teacher expressed high satisfaction with Goal Guide because it served a curricular function—teaching students about the

process of goal creation and management while providing an accessible tool to build those skills. He voiced appreciation of the fact that Goal Guide includes screen layouts that allowed him to efficiently manage a group of students with multiple goals, and to receive notifications of their use of the application.

How Does Goal Management Fit with the Bigger Picture of Self Determination?

We all want young people to follow paths they choose for themselves. Self-determination is heralded as the guiding principle in this aim. Planning teams strive to develop IEP and ISP goals that take self-determination into consideration. But what if the students and young adults involved do not seem to have the skills to move forward in self-determined ways? We believe that enhancing the involvement of students in the design and achievement of their own goals is essential. We see a critical need for a broad array of accessible applications that serve as effective tools for developing self-determination. Our hope is that Goal Guide will help meet this need.•

This work was funded in part through the US Department of Education, National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research, H133S130031



For further information about Goal Guide, readers may contact Tom Keating at or visit